India is rightly celebrating its success at conserving tigers with the all-India tiger census results published on July 29 showing a remarkable 33 per cent increase of its population in the last four years. That’s a beautiful headline at a time when most natural history news resembles doomsday scenarios. We must thoroughly congratulate all those behind this extraordinary turnaround.
However, we should also ask why this is happening in India (and Nepal), when the rest of Asia’s wildlife is disappearing at an alarming rate. Most other tiger-range countries, 13 in all, are experiencing tiger extinction, most rapidly and recently in the once plentiful forests of Southeast Asia.
Two bits of earlier news help illustrate the ground reality behind these figures. Firstly, Kawal Tiger Reserve in Telangana—a park nobody has ever heard of and few care about—lost its only remaining tiger to poaching last year. And secondly, another report in January this year showed the exact opposite. The government’s own scientists at the Wildlife Institute of India reported that many tiger parks (all of which I know well and have visited often) were now full of the big cats and that park authorities could not cope with any increase in population.
So why this extraordinary difference between India’s tiger reserves? Too full or completely empty?
I believe it’s largely due to economics. You could call it ‘conservation-dependent’ economics, but I call it ‘Tigernomics’. We have, in fact, turned a rural economy based on extraction of natural resources into an attraction economy where visitors now want to enjoy this same natural heritage. A remarkable reversal. The tiger population has seen an increase of 33 per cent in the July 2019 census
Economies work, and this attraction economy is working wonders in parts of India using the one creature society seems to value beyond any real logical reasoning: the tiger. Nature-based tourism is a huge economy around the globe. A WWF-backed report in 2015 states that visits to the world’s protected areas is a $650 billion industry. It has largely developed in the last 20 years, now mostly aimed at and enjoyed by the domestic visitors’ market. However, it is still in its infancy relative to its potential. This attraction economy is, as the recent tiger census highlights, already working wonders for countless villagers living besides today’s well-visited tiger forests.
I believe visitors have been the saviour of this majestic animal. More, probably, than any single intervention since Project Tiger was conceived. The late Dian Fossey, the great mountain gorilla primatologist, did not foresee the power of her own research subjects to draw visitors to an unknown part of Africa, thereby saving them from what she saw as inevitable extinction. Similarly, the majority of tiger-range countries have lost or are losing their tiger populations on account of not having had a wildlife-friendly economy—with only Nepal and India doubling their tiger numbers since the census began in 2006.
Visitors pay to see the mystical cat in its mythical lands. The passionate visitor returns home to advocate and petition for the beast’s long-term security. Safari-goers make authorities and protectors accountable for what’s in these wild landscapes day in and day out. They fund the building of an economy that generates rural jobs and new livelihoods that make a landscape and its creatures worth preserving. No other business does this quite as well or quite as effectively. So effectively, in fact, that my organisation, TOFTigers, calculated in 2010 that a single tigress in Ranthambhore generated an astonishing $101 million for the local economy in visitor fees and revenues over the decade of her rule.
Studies highlight that every rupee invested in habitat conservation by the government can get a return of `67 in this new attraction economy. Now, no government can say it’s not worth saving tigers. They simply cannot afford not to invest in conservation with that remarkable return on taxpayers’ money.
Safari-goers should be feted as the tiger’s salvation. They put their hard-earned money, their precious time and often their votes into ensuring parks remain for future generations. From them come the wildlife advocates, scientists, forest officers and conservationists of the future, following the likes of Billy Arjan Singh, Fateh Singh Rathore and Valmik Thapar, all brought up visiting protected areas from a very early age.
The evidence is overwhelming. The well-known tiger reserves like Corbett, Nagarhole, Ranthambhore and Bandhavgarh are stuffed full of tigers. In fact, ‘overfull’ according to scientists. These parks have been brought back from the brink of collapse, from only a decade or more ago, a time in which the growth of this new and dynamic rural economy has boomed, and visitors have flocked to enjoy their extraordinary offerings. However, other parks like Kawal remain in the conservation doldrums. They are struggling to save their remaining tigers, even with all the same rules and regulations, government funds and charity dollars that 40 years of tiger conservation have thrown at them. The reason? There is simply no new rural attraction economy—that critical ‘behavioural change mechanism’—that can restructure a protected area’s future from one of extraction, overgrazing and marginal earnings, to one of protection, alternative livelihoods and viable opportunities for the thousands of villagers who border (and live within) these parks across South Asia.
This is not to take away the credit that is due to forest management for their protection efforts. Their work is critical too, but it is only when excited visitors (and local MLAs and state ministers) start seeing tigers that people become excited about a park and see the opportunity and revenue that stems from it.
Today, as our 2017 TOFTigers report highlighted, Madhya Pradesh park management has not only `39.7 crore in state and central funds every year for protection and community support, but also a further `19.4 crore, an extra 33 per cent, from visitor park fees. Furthermore, a rural tourism economy worth `166 crore, with 2,525 new full-time jobs (and probably triple of that in ancillary jobs and services) dependent on their protected area and its wild inhabitants is remaining alive. That’s a lot of jobs (and government tax off the back of it) that did not exist merely 20 years ago.
So, if this is such a brilliant idea for saving India’s parks, and the demand is there, why hasn’t it happened across India’s protected area network? Why is Kawal Tiger Reserve still where Pench Tiger Reserve was 20 years ago? This, I believe, is largely because of an institutional blindness, an illogical obstinacy from many state and central forest departments. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) refused to see the value of this economy for the preservation of all its 51 tiger reserves, and over 700 other sanctuaries. Instead, they preferred to work without the hassle, accountability and extra work that visitors bring to a Field Director’s job. I do totally agree with foresters, visitors are a hassle, no matter what guise they come in. They create a hellish mess if allowed, require staffing, resources and infrastructure. However, visitors themselves are not the problem. What was, and still is, is the complete lack of planning and investment for this rural economy.
The result is predictable. Poor, unedifying visitor experiences, unplanned and unsightly development in areas critical to wildlife, poor sanitary and building regulations, poor roads and inevitable friction between hoteliers, park authorities and local communities. This new economy is not, as some might believe, a social enterprise. It’s a business like any other and needs the same forward planning, infrastructure investment, expertise and regulation as any other industry to ensure its sustainability, and make certain local communities get the majority of the monetary pie. We need the same smart forest planning that local authorities do for urban planning.
The reality is that the authorities have singularly failed to create the necessary mechanisms to ensure a well-managed and regulated sector. And so, this nature-based industry has developed by default—in a vacuum of land-use planning and regulation outside of parks. Well thought-out policies that benefit wildlife protection, ensure better visitor experiences, catalyse opportunities and benefit local communities have singularly failed to appear. For any potential investor in ecotourism, it’s been more about what you can’t do than what should be done.
Worse still, the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Travel and Tourism report states that even though India is ranked as one of the world’s top biodiversity hotspots, its ability to draw visitors solely on natural heritage is a miserable 113th in the world. This is not helped by the government’s prioritisation of its merits and expenditure on this sector at a similar lowly position—below Mongolia and Tajikistan. Lastly, and more worryingly, the environmental sustainability of this sector ranks almost last in the world, at 134 out of 136 countries, with only Kuwait and Yemen doing worse.
India’s inflexible forest management regime and one-size-fits-all visitor template should not be the only show in town. In fact, nearly 80 per cent of conservation activity in Africa’s wild landscapes are carried out either privately by non-governmental organisations, or by community-based management. India’s politics (and laws) may not allow such owning of wildlife or wilderness areas, so it can continue to own the freehold. However, it can allow some varying public-private or community conservation of its unprotected landscapes that need rapid restoration and simple TLC to be open for a new style of management and innovative new funding mechanisms. And suddenly, India will have world-class visitor experiences and greater conservation efforts. India has all the expertise, skills and funds to do this, but the authorities do not yet have the belief in others to do it.
The tiger is a unique beast. It is the world’s most recognised and beloved animal. It’s also an umbrella species for every other creature, big or small, that lives within its jungle lair. Save it and its wooded heartland, and you save the waters needed by over 830 million people in Asia. You mitigate against alarming climate changes happening across all the tiger-range countries, and save the immense cultural values that this feline has to the peoples that live within its influence. We are saving ourselves here, not just a stripy wild animal.
We really can fit many more tigers into South Asia if we try harder.